The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics

The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics

The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics

The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics


The subject of personal identity is one of the most central and most contested and exciting in philosophy. Ever since Locke, psychological and bodily criteria have vied with one another in conflicting accounts of personal identity. Carol Rovane argues that, as things stand, the debate is unresolvable since both sides hold coherent positions that our common sense will embrace. Our very common sense, she maintains, is conflicted; so any resolution to the debate is bound to be revisionary. She boldly offers such a revisionary theory of personal identity by first inquiring into the nature of persons.

Rovane begins with a premise about the distinctive ethical nature of persons to which "all substantive ethical doctrines, ranging from Kantian to egoist, can subscribe. From this starting point, she derives two startling metaphysical possibilities: there could be "group persons composed of many human beings and "multiple persons within a single human being. Her conclusion supports Locke's distinction between persons and human beings, but on altogether new grounds. These grounds lie in her radically normative analysis of the condition of per


Like much recent philosophical work on personal identity, this effort takes its main cue from Locke.

Locke famously argued that the condition of personal identity is distinct from the condition of animal identity. Yet that is not where his real originality lay. Cartesians, and many others in the Platonic and Christian philosophical traditions, had embraced and defended this distinction well before he did. Locke's innovations lay rather in his particular account of the distinction, and the defense he gave of it. He produced an entirely novel analysis of the condition of personal identity, and he defended that analysis with what may have been the first philosophical thought experiment about personal identity.

According to Locke's analysis, personal identity consists in sameness of consciousness. Although it is somewhat obscure what sameness of consciousness is, this much is clear: Locke regarded it as a psychological relation that comprehends different thoughts and actions, and he held that this relation can obtain over time without being grounded either in a persisting soul or in the ongoing life of an animal. Thus his first innovation was to analyze personal identity in purely psychological terms, making no appeal to any independent, which is to say nonpsychological, ground for personal identity. What is especially striking about Locke's thinking in this matter is that his arguments against such independent grounds of personal identity took the same form no matter what sort of ground was offered—that is, regardless of whether it was the sort of ground that dualists offer, namely, the spiritual substance of a soul, or the sort of ground that materialists offer, such as the biological organization of an animal. in both cases Locke's objection was the same: he could imagine sameness of consciousness without sameness of soul or animal, and he could imagine sameness of soul or animal without sameness of consciousness. From this he inferred that the condition of personal identity must be distinct from the respective conditions of identity for souls and animals.

Locke's second innovation was to offer a thought experiment in defense of his purely psychological analysis of personal identity in terms of sameness of consciousness. He asked us to imagine that the respective consciousnesses of a prince and a cobbler were switched, each into the other's body, and to work out who would be who once the switch had taken place. He thought it was obvious that in this circumstance the prince would be the person with the princely consciousness and the cobbling body, and the cobbler would be the person with the cobbling consciousness and the princely body.

It is a testament to the power of Locke's two innovations that philosophical investigations into the person continue to grapple with them. Not only is it the case that subsequent investigations have continued to focus on the issue . . .

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